Cutting Out the Middle Cow and Getting Calcium Directly from the Source
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, 30 Day Vegan Challenge
For years it nagged away at the back of my mind; I really should learn to like milk because I probably needed more calcium. It wasn’t healthy not to drink milk. As a child, I didn’t like milk. I loved cheese. I loved butter and cream. I just didn’t like milk, not even when you loaded it up with strawberry flavoured sugar. And in this milk guzzling country, I was an anomaly.
Several years ago when I smashed up my shoulder after a fall, the doctor was concerned I might have fragile bones because the extent of the shattering seemed way out of proportion to the accident (I fell over trying to speed walk – I know, don’t ask!!). I went for a bone scan. It was all good, but even then the specialist asked me about calcium intake and suggested I consume more milk.
It is something of a relief to find out, and I can’t believe it took me this long, but calcium doesn’t grow in cows. We don’t need to consume dairy to get calcium. Calcium, according to Wikipedia is a “soft grey alkaline earth metal”. Animals, including us, need calcium for a surprisingly large range of really important cell functions, including strong bones, teeth and shells, where the calcium is stored.
“Calcium occurs most commonly in sedimentary rocks in the minerals calcite, dolomite and gypsum. It also occurs in igneous and metamorphic rockschiefly in the silicate minerals: plagioclases, amphiboles, pyroxenes and garnets.”
Yes, calcium is in the soil, which means it is absorbed into the green grass, and the cows eat the soil and grass. Cows need calcium like we all do, especially when lactating breast-milk. Obviously, all breast-milk is high in calcium. Cow’s milk is supposed to nurture growing baby cows. Colleen is absolutely right, we too, can skip the animal and get our calcium directly from the source or through plants high in calcium.
This thing we all believe about needing calcium is absolutely correct. This thing we all believe about needing dairy products to get calcium is all marketing. I looked up several sources, including those completely disinterested in veganism like the US Department of Health and Human Services, and yes there are loads of places to get calcium other than dairy. According to their recommendations a woman my age should be getting 1000 mg a day. A half cup of firm tofu made with calcium sulphate has 253 mg, and around a US cup of calcium fortified soy milk has 300 mg, even a slice of bread or a cup of sliced Chinese cabbage has 73 mg. A cup of the almond milk I buy, according to its nutritional information, has 188 mg, That means setting a goal to get around 1000 mg of calcium a day without dairy isn’t hard.
However, the story is a more complex than just how much calcium you consume. The key word here is bioavailability, meaning how much calcium we actually absorb. A cup of cooked broccoli, for example, has 62 mg calcium with a bioavailability of 60%, but the tofu as mentioned and cow’s milk have only 30%. I will leave it to you to do the math on that one. Vitamin D also helps to increase calcium absorption.
It is also worth noting that a large proportion of the world’s population, especially in Asia, lose the enzyme necessary to digest milk sugar after about the age of four. It is impossible to avoid how necessary the dairy industry is to the New Zealand economy, most of this fuelled by our hugely successful efforts to convince the Chinese to buy our milk products. Yet, they don’t have the physiology to tolerate it. As Colleen points out, what we call genetic lactose “intolerance” is actually normal human physiology. We are not supposed to keep drinking breast-milk. It is only those of us descended from milk drinking populations like Northern Europeans whose ancestor’s selected for the genetic trait of tolerance to lactose.